January 5, 2010

CIA Blinded by Ambition

A new New York Times report sheds another ray of light on Humam Khalil Abu-Mulal al-Balawi, the Jordan double agent who detonated himself at FOB Chapman last week. We know the CIA is starved for information on al-Qaeda's leadership; al-Balawi used this hunger to gain confidence.

The NYT article completes the story. America is eager to chase al-Qaeda deputy Ayman al-Zawahri - maybe too eager. To quote, "With the Jordanian double agent, American intelligence officials proved to be overly optimistic about someone they had hoped could help them penetrate Al Qaeda’s inner circle."

“He had provided information that checked out, about people in Al Qaeda whom he had access to,” said a senior intelligence official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the C.I.A.’s contacts with the Jordanian are classified. “This was one of the agency’s most promising efforts.”

Obviously this information stream was a ruse, but it's difficult for CIA officials to see this beforehand. Yet blind ambition to land al-Zawahri led the CIA to relax its protocol when it failed to search him, exposing a weakness for al-Balawi. An abnormally large CIA meeting, all wanting a piece of him, provided the target.

“This is the C.I.A’s top priority, and when I was in Afghanistan, if any intelligence came about the possible whereabouts of Zawahri or bin Laden, you dropped everything to run it to ground,” said a former senior C.I.A. officer. “Everyone would have wanted to be on the team that caught Zawahri. That’s the kind of thing that makes careers.”

It's a shame that catching al-Zawahri is sexier than understanding the Afghan population. Any competent commander would understand these backward priorities need reversing - before they lead to more CIA deaths and strategic failure in Afghanistan.

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